[Robert Hera-Singh is eleven years of age. When asked how he feels about the area he lives in, he replied, ‘I’m proud of the water coming back. I’m proud that so many people survived through the drought. I’m proud how Australians say they’ll never give up on the lake and the Coorong and I hope the whole environment stays healthy.’ He tells his story to Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh.]
My dad was born in Tailem Bend because that was the only hospital around the place and then he met my mum and she had me and Jasmine. Jasmine’s older than me so she had already entered this world before I entered it. I was born in Adelaide but I was raised here in Meningie. I think Mum and Dad might’ve been looking for a block of land to build on when I was in Mum’s belly, so, yes, I might’ve already been here before I was here. So there’s just me and Jasmine and we go to school at Murray Bridge. I’m in Year 5. I’m not really sure how long it takes the bus to get to Murray Bridge because I’m usually sleeping or something. It’s a long day. Like, I take forever to have a shower so if I want to have a shower before I go to school I have to wake up at five in the morning. But normally I’m up around 6 o’clock and I have my breakfast then I wait around for Jasmine because she takes forever to get dressed.
I love living at Meningie. Everyone knows me so I don’t have to be kept inside all day like some city kids do. I can ride my bike and my skateboard around town and, after this talk, I’ll probably go and see my mates. I’d really like to have a motorbike but Mum thinks I might stuff around on it too much. That’s because, when I very first went on a bike, Mum said, ‘Keep it in first gear.’ But I didn’t. So after she saw me stuffing around in third gear she said, ‘No, you can’t get a motorbike, not after I saw what you did.’
Anyway, I think I’m too old for that sort of bike now. I want to get one of the ones you see on the esky. Some of my mates have got one. You can buy them on e-bay. They have like a motor in the back and they run on either petrol or electricity. The electric ones are quite good. Though, if you go full speed, the battery runs down real quick so that type might not suit me best. But what I really love doing the most is fishing – either here in Lake Albert or down the Coorong. Dad’s a fisherman. It’s how he makes a living. You have to have a commercial licence to do net fishing and if you’ve got yabby pots you have to have a special yellow card. You don’t need a licence for a rod. You just cast it out. There used to be catfish in the lake but now there’s a lot of carp and only sometimes red fin. Carp aren’t much good for eating but if you’ve got the proper licence you can sell them to people who use them for cray fishing and things like that.
I don’t know if you know or not, but we had this big drought a few years ago and the water got so low in Lake Albert that it was just a big muddy puddle out in the middle with sand all around it where the water used to be. All the fish were gone except for the carp and like, one day, I walked out to the middle and the water was so low that the carp were getting stuck in the mud and they couldn’t get out. Lots of them died that way. I once went to grab a stuck carp but I kept sinking down in the mud so I couldn’t get to it. It was like that. Before the drought got really bad, me and my cousins tried to go swimming in the lake and when we got out we smelt so much we had to get hosed down. There was also this guy who went out walking into the lake and he got stuck in the mud and he started sinking and he sunk right up to his neck and Nanna had to go down there with some rope and like pull him out. And after they got him out, all his pockets were full of mud and he was covered in black stuff all over. I don’t remember his name but he was in his mid-60s. He used to play golf here and he goes up to Queensland to visit his daughter every now and then. Another time a friend of mine had an automatic quad-bike and he took me out for a ride around the lake and I was meant to be holding on to him around his waist but I held on to the back bar instead and when he went around a corner I fell off. So I was pretty grateful that the ground was all soft mud. I don’ t think you should let Mum know about that because I’d like to get a quad-bike one day.
But the drought was terrible. When it first started I was only about six and I said, ‘I’m going to write a letter to this top guy and ask him why the lake had dried up and see if he was going to fix it.’ I even tried to spell that letter all by myself and when I asked Dad who I should send it to, he told me, but I never got an answer so the letter must’ve gone to the wrong place. But the drought was so bad it was effecting the environment and it was wrecking everyone’s heart. Some of the people were moving away and there was hardly anyone in the caravan park and like all of that hurt the people’s feelings so much that Dad got sad about it too. I still remember that.
Then now the water’s back, there’s been people coming back to live and everyone seems happier, even Dad. I actually remember when the water started coming in. It was a hot day and the sun was just going down and my Pop had a competition with his mates to see who could catch the most fish and Pop caught one really big carp. But you could see the water like, getting more and more every day, yet when the drought was on, the jetty just went right out into the lake to nowhere because there was no water. Then, when the water started to reach up to the jetty, people who hadn’t been out on the jetty for a couple of years were all going out on the jetty again and it would’ve only been ankle deep around the bottom. But that water was like, dark, muddy, dirty water because it was washing in all the rubbish down from up the river. And it was really smelly and even though the lake’s still not back to full like, a lot of the birds that didn’t come here when the drought was on, they’ve started to come back and all the different sorts of fish are coming back. But you’ve still got to be careful if you swim in it. Not long ago, my mates and me were diving in the lake and one of them said, ‘Don’t let the water go into your ears or they’ll get infected.’
What stopped the drought was all the water from the Queensland floods. I don’t know if you know or not but the Darling River comes down from Queensland and then it goes into the Murray River and then some of the water from the Murray River goes into Lake Alexandrina and the water from Lake Alexandrina comes into Lake Albert. Dad does all his fishing all around that area. He’s even got a little camp down the Coorong where he sometimes goes fishing. It’s not even a shack really, it’s just a camp about the same size of this room with a bed over there, another bed over there and there’s a tiny little kitchen and a window. I’ve been there at sunset and it’s just so beautiful because you can see all the different birds out in the water and the Coorong’s coming in around you and there’s all the pink of the sunset. Once, Dad and me, we had some bony bream and we were chucking them up in the air and the pelicans were flying down and just about grabbing them out of our hands.
And see – over there on the wall – that’s a picture of Dad and a guy called Bill and they’re holding up two mighty big mulloway. I don’t know how many kilos they are but that photo was taken in 1994, not long after I was born. Then, if you look real close, see in the background, there’s the nets and there’s the waves of the sea. Well those fish got caught out where the waves are. Like, at the back area of the Coorong there’s the sea and there’s a long beach that goes right down to the Murray mouth and that’s where they used to set out their big mesh net and catch the mulloway and, because Bill’s older than Dad, and Dad’s a good swimmer, Bill always said to Dad, ‘Garry, I’m not goin’ out there in the water first ‘cause I don’t want to die by being bit by a shark.’ And so Dad always had to get in the water first.
Another guy called John was staying down here for a while and he was a really great swimmer. He’d even won races for his swimming and he’d grab the net and he’d dive in with the waves crashing all over his head and he’d swim the net right out. And if he couldn’t get out far enough he’d come back in and have a rest for a bit then he’d like swim the net straight back out again, without Dad asking him. Yeah, he’d actually swim the net out into the sea. That’s how you do it. You swim the net out through the Murray mouth then let it go with the current for a couple of hours before you pull it back in and, this John, like he’d swim all the way out and he’d drop the net and sometimes, if he got real tired, he’d hold onto the rope and pull himself back into the beach. I don’t know how he could do it, but he did.
These days one of the big problems the fishermen are having is the New Zealand fur seals. They rip the fish out of all the nets with their teeth, and it’s illegal to kill them, right. But they’re not native to Australia. They’re native from New Zealand and we still can’t kill them. And they get pretty agro. One of my friend’s friend – seal came up and it bit him. That’s true. Another day there was a seal on the road and someone tried to drag it off to the side so it wouldn’t get run over and it bit him. It was like, just down from here. Then another time a seal grabbed a guy and it dragged him out into the water and the guy died from suffocation. He wasn’t even a kid either, he was an adult. True; I’ll get Mum to tell you the story later.
But even with all that trouble, I still reckon, if you want a great life, fishing’s the thing to do. It’s all I want to do in life. It’s what I’m the best at. Only thing is, Dad wants me to get a trade before I can get a commercial licence so I’m going to do a mechanic’s trade so that, when I go out fishing and the motor on the boat breaks down, I’ll know how to fix it.